“There’s this old Yiddish proverb I learned all too well on July 16, 2006:
‘We plan, God laughs.’
Those plans of retiring and spending some time golfing with my husband Tim were not in the cards that day. On our way out of the house that sunny Sunday July 16th morning, I glanced at our local paper, cup of hot coffee in hand. There, staring back at me, was an article about children in Iraq who needed multiple surgeries and couldn’t get them because surgeons were fleeing the country. The United States was still at war in Iraq in 2006.
The images of those damaged and scared children took my breath away. But one in particular seemed to stare back at me, penetrating my gaze. As I looked at this photo of 4-year-old Teeba Furat Fadhil, the room seemed to black out around me. I was neither aware of anything in my surroundings nor my husband calling me to hurry up. I only focused on those big, sad brown eyes with extra-long eyelashes looking at me. They were surrounded by scarred and mottled skin, a head with virtually no hair. ‘Help me,’ her eyes she seemed to say. Teeba was sitting on her father’s lap with a lopsided grin. Scar tissue pulled down one corner of her mouth. Her father was hoping she would get the help she needed medically, but the byline said, ‘All she wants is a wig so the kids won’t make fun of her when she starts school.’
In 2003, when Teeba was 19-months-old, she was in a taxi with her father and 3-year-old brother when it ran over an IED bomb on their way to Baghdad. Teeba’s brother died and she sustained severe burns on her head, face, and hands. Their father was not injured. I cut out the article and placed it in my pocket.
Later that day, I taped it to the wall of my home office and sat down at the computer. I was determined to help little Teeba. The first thing I did was dash off an email to the American journalist stationed in Baghdad, James Palmer, who wrote the article. I told him I’d like to help Teeba and would he ask her family if I could secure that help, would they give her permission to come to Northeast Ohio. Little did I know when I clicked ‘send’ I would be sending away my old life as well…. a life that revolved around my husband, my dog, and me.
Within days, I had secured wigs from a local salon that provided free wigs to children who had cancer, alopecia, and other disorders. One step forward. Next, I was able to secure a meeting at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital to discuss Teeba’s situation and ask for their help. Knowing this help would require thousands upon thousands of dollars, I pleaded with them to take on this case with fingers crossed it would be pro bono. I was told no promises could be made, but they were willing to meet with Teeba to assess treatment. They couldn’t determine what would be required by a newspaper photograph that had now become a permanent part of my body! Always in my hand wherever I went. I left the hospital with an appointment for a future date for Teeba’s evaluation. Now I just had to get her here. Second step forward.
Another saying ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ always reverberated in my head. Naively, I thought everyone would be willing to help this little girl get to the United States for help. It was a humanitarian effort! She’s a baby for goodness sake. But I was hit with obstacle after obstacle. She’d need special visas and would have to travel to Jordan to get them from the Consulate. Who would bring her from her family? The politics of getting proper paperwork during this wartime with Iraq was mounting. It was daunting…one step back. I also couldn’t get help from Royal Jordanian Airlines with the cost of the airfare. Another step back.
I am a woman of great faith and there was no way I wasn’t going to answer this calling. Out of frustration, I stomped outside to my driveway and yelled up to God. ‘Why aren’t you helping me? What good are you?’ On and on I railed. As I turned to come back into the house, I noticed a golf ball marker at my feet. When I picked it up and turned it over, it read ‘God Loves You’ surrounded by laurel wreaths. The hair on my neck and arms prickled and at that moment, I knew everything was going to be okay. I truly felt reassured and at peace.
Shortly after, I met a woman at a local news station, Monica Robins. I had called her asking for help because she was so well regarded in our community as a meticulous and respected journalist. I again came armed with my newspaper article and pleaded my case. She thoughtfully listened to my plea, then said, ‘I know just the person who could help.’ Elated, we called him immediately. Steve Sosobee from the PCRF immediately picked up the phone which was a miracle unto itself. Steve and his then wife Huda (she has since passed) are usually traveling around the Middle East. They raise money to bring injured children from all over the Middle East to hospitals all over the world for medical treatment. They had resources and the ability to facilitate the visas and transportation to get Teeba here. I was dancing on a cloud. Back now to 3 steps forward! During the time we made the arrangements and the time Teeba actually arrived was a whirlwind.
But the day I got the call from Huda asking when do we want her – I fell to my knees crying. She was finally coming. It never occurred to me until at least a year later that the day she arrived was July 16, 2007. One year to the day I read about her. God is so good!
Meeting Teeba at the airport was filled with great anticipation. Her paternal grandmother would be bringing her. As we waited at the gate and the plane arrived, passengers disembarked all tired and weary. As the last passenger walked out of the jet way, we realized there was no Teeba, no grandmother. My heart sunk. The agent at the gate did some follow-up work and found out they had missed their connecting flight and would be arriving on the next plane in one hour. When we again returned to our positions one hour later, off came an exhausted, tiny, dazed little girl, clearly confused by all the people surrounding her and her grandmother speaking a language they couldn’t understand.
In the following days, we arranged for a personally designed wig, visited the doctors at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, and fell madly in love with this tiny whirling dervish! We had friends who translated for us, but within 3 months, Teeba was speaking fluent English. She started pre-kindergarten at The Goddard School and soon had loads of friends to support her and care for her. Teeba’s grandmother left after Thanksgiving that same year to return to Iraq. Unbeknownst to her, her youngest son had been murdered by Al Qaeda. It was going to be a painful reunion when she returned.
We began our path to replacing the skin on Teeba’s face through a series of surgeries involving tissue expansion. Tissue expansion is where they put a balloon type device under the skin that has an external port. The first two – one under her neck and one on her back – began the now weekly visits to get them filled with a saline solution. As they expanded to a pre-determined size and the expander was removed, the burned skin was removed and the new skin was attached. It would be a long and tedious process that would ultimately lead to 20 surgeries.
During this time, Teeba seemed unfazed by her appearance. She was used to people staring and I became used to running interference. But one of the vital lessons learned was that beauty begins from within. You can have a beautiful face but a horrible, unkind disposition which will completely negate the external prettiness. With each surgery, it was like a new piece of the puzzle was put into place. Fresh new skin grew and although Teeba knew she would never be perfect, I told her that no one will ever be perfect. As the years went by she saw how many people picked apart their faces or bodies with unnecessary criticism of themselves. ‘I’m too fat, I’m too skinny, I have acne, I hate my hair,’ and on and on. American television commercials scream with advertisements for products that will make you skinnier, blonder, have whiter teeth, attract men with a specific fragrance, and so on.
There were what I call miraculous God moments, too many of them. Those I outline in our book A Brave Face, and I encourage you read about them. Faith was and still is critical to my life. During all these years, especially in the early years, people would ask me questions like ‘is she going to live here?’ or ‘what happens next month with this surgery’? There were many questions, but my answer was always the same. I worked in very tiny increments of time. Everything was always within a 2 to 3 week time period. I believe God puts blinders on you sometimes. If I was able to see the big picture of our journey, I may not have been able to take that first step. Imagine if someone said to you, ‘You’ll be getting a child from the Middle East who doesn’t speak English and will need multiple surgeries, education and so forth….what would you do?’ I chose to deal only with what was right in front of me during a very short period of time. It allowed us to savor those successes and precious moments before moving onto the next surgery or dramatic event.
The years went by, the surgeries took place with amazing healing. Teeba flourished and was extremely successful in school. She was popular, had a great sense of humor, and a bigger than life sense of self-esteem. Although it was now 2016 and Teeba had been with us 10 years, she hadn’t seen her mother or siblings, one of which was born after she arrived in the United States. Although we kept in touch with her mom via phone, Facetime, and Skype, it still wasn’t the same as seeing her in person. That ache became great in Teeba, and in us – especially me. I felt her mom was my other half.
So, with the help of friends, we arranged for a trip to see her family. The only place we could get them out of Iraq to was Dubai. I was so frightened to travel to the Middle East and afraid of seeing Teeba’s mom. What would she think of us? Would she think I was too old? Would she insist Teeba leave the U.S. and go back to Iraq? So many unanswered questions and unfounded worries. Teeba was the adult in the room assuring us that this was going to be a safe and perfect trip. That she would not be returning to Iraq because she loved us, loved this country, and also dearly loved her family. This was her dream to have all of us together.
So, Tim and I, along with our dear friends the Perotti’s, took her mother Dunia and 3 siblings and we all met in Dubai! It was an extremely emotional and loving visit. Dunia and I truly merged as one mom, an ‘Ameriraqi’ mom! My friend who lives in Dubai who helped facilitate this trip picked up Teeba’s mom and her siblings at the airport. Tim and I had rented a 4-bedroom apartment with 5 bathrooms and huge living spaces to allow for both privacy as well as room to celebrate our reunion. When my friend texted me that he was on the way with our new Iraqi family, Tim and I chose to wait in the lobby for them. Teeba would wait upstairs with our friends to avoid a very emotional meeting in a public place.
As I paced back and forth waiting for my friend to pull up in his black SUV, my stomach was in knots. And then I saw his car and a side view of Teeba’s mom. I burst into tears, running into the intersection. At that moment, Dunia caught sight of me and she jumped out of the car while it was still slightly moving. We embraced each other tightly, crying, and saying I love you over and over again – in two different languages. The kids jumped out, not knowing what was happening, and started to cry to. Tim and I, everyone….all hugged and cried. I took Dunia’s hand and we went up the elevator to our apartment. I could feel her hand shaking and could sense her nervousness. The reality is, she too was nervous about meeting us! I opened the door and called out to Teeba, ‘Honey, mom’s here.’ Teeba stepped into the hallway and for the first time in 10 years, she saw her family in person. ‘Habibti (sweetheart),’ Dunia called out to Teeba. They melted into each other’s arms. It was a moment I will never forget, God filled that space with love, peace, and joy.
Never was there a competitive moment or a time when Teeba seemed conflicted with her two moms. Dubai is quite a sight to behold filled with extravagant stores and buildings. But for Dunia, Teeba was the only jewel she saw. We had so much fun and when my friend wasn’t there interpreting for us, it was a game of charades and Google translate.
When it was time to return home, the night before was spent in tears with Dunia and me. The kids all were screaming and laughing, but Dunia and I promised this wouldn’t be our last visit.
Today, we talk or communicate via text regularly. Even with just an emoji sometimes. I check every day for a message from her as she does from me. I am bound to Dunia and I truly love my Iraqi family. Neither in the past or 13 years later have we ever discussed politics or religion. None of that matters. All that matters is the well-being and our love for this one little girl. Our Teeba.
Although I could go on for forever, reliving each precious moment, space does not permit me. There is so much to our story that to this day, both my husband and I still cry when talking about the past 13 years. We have been blessed with many gifts, and I personally feel Teeba has changed my life more than we have changed hers.
Today at 17, she is looking ahead to college and then medical school to become a pediatric anesthesiologist. Teeba feels she can relate to the fear in little children as she too, was so fearful during those early years. But as she moves forward with her life, hopefully someday with a wonderful husband like mine and her own children, she will continue to bath in the knowledge that she is beloved by two families and that she too, will pay it forward someday.”
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This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Barbara A. Marlowe. You can follow her and Teeba’s journey on Facebook and their website. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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